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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July, 2005, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Tricky path to Bolivian stability
By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

Bolivian protesters
Most of Bolivia's protesters are from its poor Indian majority

Bolivia's Senate has approved plans to bring forward elections, review the constitution and put regional autonomy to the vote. Does this mean an end to Bolivia's recent political instability is now in sight?

Two Bolivian presidents have been removed by popular protests in the last 19 months. Now, three of the main demands of the protesters have been met.

They wanted a completely new Congress, which has fallen into considerable disrepute in the last few months. The Senate is due to approve presidential and congressional elections for December this year.

The protesters also wanted a constituent assembly - and the Congress has agreed to hold elections for a special assembly to write a new constitution next year.

That is largely because most of the protesters are from Bolivia's poor Indian majority, and they hope a new constitution assembly will give them more rights.

And, protesters in the relatively better-off departments in the east of the country - where Bolivia's huge gas reserves are situated - wanted a referendum on regional autonomy, and they too have got part of what they wanted.

They have also been given the right to hold direct elections for the governors of Bolivia's nine departments, at a date to be decided. Currently they are appointed by the president.

The three main measures should buy the interim government of President Eduardo Rodriguez a relatively quiet period.

But serious doubts remain about Bolivia's longer-term stability.

Fragile alliances

A large part of the problem lies in the lack of the legitimacy of the traditional political parties and of the president.

The last two Bolivian presidents to win elections only gained about 22% of the vote - General Hugo Banzer in 1997 and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2002.

Eduardo Rodriguez
Eduardo Rodriguez's predecessors did not last long in the job
Both had to rely on fragile political alliances. Many neutral observers hope that the new elections will result in a clear winner with a strong mandate to rule.

Another major obstacle to Bolivia's stability is that there is no one dominant social or political group which has been able to impose its vision of the country's future on the other.

On the one hand, the eastern departments clearly want a pro-capitalist Bolivia where foreign investment is welcome.

But in the western Aymara and Quechua Indian departments, the majority seem to favour some sort of nationalisation of the gas reserves which they argue will pull them out of their current status as South America's poorest nation.

Changing stance?

One of the high profile, radical Aymara leaders of the protest movements, Evo Morales, would meet serious difficulties in achieving national consensus.

He came second in the 2002 elections by a slim margin, but with little more than 20% of the vote.

It is by no means certain he can appeal to a wider number of Bolivians beyond his support base.

Evo Morales
Evo Morales is a leader of a coca-growers' union in central Bolivia

Some analysts are already saying there are signs he is softening his position on nationalisation, by hinting he could find a way of working with the large number of foreign oil and gas companies operating in the country.

And the challenge for the centre-right parties is to offer something new to the poor Indian majority other than the dominant free market model of the last 20 years.

A recent study by the World Bank concluded that even though Indians have been growing in political influence in Bolivia, this has not translated into an improvement in their living conditions.

And the same study showed that inequality was still a major challenge: the richest 10% of Bolivians consume 22 times more than the poorest 10%.

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